Marcela Crowe has a master’s degree in Environmental Studies from York University through a joint program with Sculich School of Business. Her studies focused on sustainable business models applied to urban agriculture. She’s also worked as both a farmer and as a farm consultant in Ontario. About a year ago, she moved to Vancouver. Crowe became executive director of the Vancouver Urban Farming Society in July 2015. Now that the city has adopted regulations governing urban farming, she spoke to the Courier about this emerging sector.
What is an urban farm?
There is a distinction between urban farming and urban agriculture. Urban farming is a subset of urban agricultural and it specifically relates to farming for profit. There are a lot of community gardens — thousands where people are growing food for themselves or their community, but they’re not necessarily selling the produce. They’re consuming it, they’re sharing it. Urban farming specifically relates to growing food for the purpose of selling it to market. That could be community-supported agriculture or it could be at a farmers’ market or on an online platform or selling it to a distributor or restaurants directly. The models there could be a truly for-profit business — we have urban farms that are solely for profit. We also have urban farms that work within a co-operative model and we also have social-purpose ventures. They’re the newly emerging hybrid between the social-impact non-profit sector and the for-profit sector where they’re generating revenue in order to support some kind of initiative that’s behind the organization. An example of that would be Sole Food Street Farms or even Fresh Roots.
What are Vancouver Urban Farming Society’s objectives?
The organization was founded four years ago by a group of farmers who had a vision about farming in Vancouver. The mandate and the vision of the organization is to grow this sector through education, through advocacy, through business support and through networking. We recognize the sector is in its nascent stages, so when we talk about growing the sector, we’re talking about supports for new and aspiring farmers [and] also supporting existing farmers — looking at their models, really improving what already exists and potentially supporting them with advice on different directions that could be taken in terms of marketing and sales [as well as providing] other business support. But the broad aim of the organization is to grow the sector.
What does urban farming look like in Vancouver right now?
The data needs to be updated. We don’t have any data for 2016 or even 2015. But we do have data from 2013. That was the last time a large census of urban farms in Vancouver took place. This will have changed, but there are approximately 14 urban farms in Vancouver. The largest one [Sole Food Street Farms] has about four acres of land. [That goes] all the way to maybe a handful of backyard farms totalling 5,000 square feet. There’s really that variety in terms of scale. In 2013, urban farmers sold about $418,000 worth of produce to residents. The farms are located throughout the city. They’re in the Downtown Eastside, they’re in Mount Pleasant, they’re in the east end and they’re in the West Side, Kitsilano area.
What are they producing?
What people are typically producing are leafy greens. We’re talking about kale and spinach, salad mixes, but then also root vegetables and vine crops. I do notice a bit of a commonality in that salad mixes seem to be fairly popular. I think that has to do with the higher premium that you can sell [it for] and you’ve got a relatively short harvest cycle as well compared with a vine crop like a tomato [plant]. I’d say I haven’t found an urban farm in the city resting their profitability on the growing of vine crops — that’s usually a subset.
What do the city’s new regulations mean for urban farming?
There has been a desire for enabling policy. Farmers have wanted to see a policy for many years. The city is proposing a two-year pilot project. That’s wonderful because when you introduce any kind of new change, especially within an early-stage sector, it could potentially be a hindrance. Introducing regulation and legislation too early in the sector, it could potentially dissuade people from entering that sector or it could actually create an environment for investors to come in and say this is a safe sector for us to invest in and look at seriously. Right now, we’re working with the city on this for the next two years. We’ll be monitoring and making recommendations to the city after their two-year growing season. We’ll be looking at the impact this has on farmers. We decided to support the policy changes on the condition that we would look at it together, in partnership with the food policy council and other urban farming community members, and make sure after two years, that if we need to make changes, those changes could take place.
Is urban farming profitable?
We have to distinguish between studies done in Vancouver in, I believe, 2013, that demonstrated that the way people were engaging in urban farming in Vancouver was for the most part not economically viable. However, there are cities, there are social enterprises, for-profit businesses in North America that have been able to demonstrate economic viability. Like any emerging sector, you are going to see things that succeed and you’re also going to see failures. Failures are lessons at such an early stage within the sector. So what’s important is to pivot and to learn from these lessons. I would say urban farming can be, under specific conditions, economically viable. We need to look at these examples that exist — a few exist in the city, but there are definitely lessons that we could be learning from places like New York, Chicago, Montreal, San Francisco, where there are models that have been able to demonstrate economic viability, offer employment opportunities and also produce a large volume of produce.
What are some of the challenges that face urban farmers?
Access to land, access to resource start-up capital.
What would you like Vancouverites to know about urban farming?
It’s becoming easier and easier to support your local urban farmer by purchasing the food that they grow at farmers’ markets, or signing up for a community-supported agriculture box or asking if your produce is locally grown. There are a lot of opportunities for people to start purchasing locally grown produce. Visit urbanfarmers.ca to get a list of farmers.
This interview was edited and condensed.